The Benefits of Melatonin: Latest Research and Surprising Uses

Written by Amanda Tracy, ND

On March 15, 2024

Melatonin supplements have become increasingly popular in recent years, with sales doubling between 2017 and 2020 to over $800 million.1 This spike is likely due to the well-known use of melatonin as a sleep aid during the stressful times of the recent pandemic. However, the latest research reveals that melatonin has a wide array of other potential benefits and applications that go far beyond just promoting better sleep.

Let’s dive into what melatonin actually is and explore some of the exciting findings from recent studies.

What is Melatonin?

Melatonin is a hormone produced naturally by the pineal gland in the brain. Its main role is to regulate the body’s sleep-wake cycles and coordinate the restorative processes that occur at night. Typically, melatonin levels start rising in the evening as it gets dark out, peaking between 1-4am, before dropping again in the morning.

While the pineal gland only produces a small amount (around 0.1-0.9 mg per night), it turns out melatonin is also produced in many other areas of the body, including the gut, bone marrow, eyes, and skin. Surprisingly, the gut makes a tremendous 400 times more melatonin than the pineal gland! This has led researchers to theorize that melatonin likely has numerous additional functions beyond just sleep regulation.

 

Emerging Research on Melatonin’s Other Roles

Some of the most fascinating new areas of melatonin research relate to its effects on the brain, immune system, and metabolism:

Brain Health

– Studies show melatonin can strengthen the blood-brain barrier, protecting the brain from infections, inflammation, and toxins.2

– It may help remove amyloid protein plaques associated with Alzheimer’s disease.

– Melatonin appears to support nerve growth, repair, and differentiation.

– Emerging evidence suggests melatonin could be helpful for other neurological conditions like depression, migraines, and dementia.

Immune Function & Cancer Treatment

– As a powerful antioxidant, melatonin helps neutralize free radical damage.

– In cancer treatment, large doses of 20-50mg per day have been found to increase 1-year survival rates, enhance chemo effectiveness, and reduce harsh side effects.

– Melatonin appears to directly support the immune cells designed to attack tumors locally and systemically.

Metabolic Health

– Melatonin may increase insulin sensitivity and support healthy blood sugar regulation.3,4

– It seems to promote a more favorable distribution of fat, increasing beneficial brown fat while reducing white fat.4

– And for postmenopausal women, studies link melatonin supplementation to greater lean muscle mass, lower blood pressure, and improved cholesterol profiles.

Bone Health

Interestingly, melatonin could play an important role in maintaining strong, healthy bones. Research indicates it:

– May prevent bone loss by reducing oxidative stress and inflammation in bone cells

– Enhances new bone formation by stimulating collagen and other bone-building compounds5

– Works synergistically with estrogen to promote bone density in pre-menopausal women

 

The combination of melatonin’s antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and endocrine effects make it a compelling area of research for various age-related conditions like osteoporosis, cardiovascular disease, neurodegeneration, and more.

 

Using Melatonin Supplementation

While melatonin is naturally present in some foods like tart cherries, tomatoes, asparagus and seeds (flax, sunflower and mustard seeds),  although the amounts are very low. This is why melatonin is so widely available as a supplement.

Most people take melatonin in the 0.3-5mg range before bedtime to help initiate sleep. For jet lag, 1-3mg about 30-60 minutes before your “new bedtime” can help reset the body’s circadian rhythm more quickly.

It’s generally recommended to start low (0.3-1mg) and see how your body responds. Be sure to use a reputable, third-party tested brand, as quality control issues are common with less expensive melatonin supplements.*

Those looking to take advantage of melatonin’s other benefits like immune support or metabolic effects may need higher doses of 10mg or more per day, sometimes split into multiple smaller doses throughout the daytime and evening. At these higher doses and for a more systemic anti-oxidant and metabolic effect, a sustained-release formula may be more helpful maintain steady melatonin levels.*

For conditions like cancer or neurodegeneration, therapeutic dosages of 20mg or higher per day may be used, but this should only be done under medical supervision due to increased risk of side effects.

 

Melatonin Myths Debunked

One persistent myth is that taking melatonin supplements will cause your body to stop producing its own melatonin, leading to dependency. However, numerous long-term studies have confirmed this is not the case, even with the large doses (30-50mg) used for cancer treatment.

In fact, supplementation may actually help trigger further natural melatonin production by the pineal gland and other areas like the gut through a feedback loop mechanism. While extremely high doses could theoretically cause some receptor desensitization over time, typical supplemental levels under 10mg per day do not present this risk.

 

A Word on Sleep, Menopause & Melatonin

While the new research is fascinating, let’s not overlook melatonin’s long-standing use as a sleep aid. As people age, their natural melatonin production declines substantially.6 This is one of the key reasons why poor sleep becomes so prevalent in older adults.

Beyond just sleep quality, the melatonin decline may also be contributing to other age-related issues like bone loss, weight gain, and hormonal imbalances like those that occur during menopause. This is an area of great interest, as restoring healthy melatonin levels could provide relief for some of the most problematic symptoms of menopause like hot flashes, mood changes, and sleep disruption – without the need for hormone replacement therapy.

A 2017 study found that an 8mg total daily dose (3mg morning and 5mg at night) of melatonin in postmenopausal women led to a 47% reduction in menopause symptoms after one year. Impressively, it also aided weight loss, lowered blood pressure, boosted beneficial HDL cholesterol, and increased lean muscle mass – all without changing other hormone levels like estrogen or FSH.7

 

The Future of Melatonin Research

As this synopsis shows, the potential applications of melatonin are truly vast. From sleep optimization and menopause relief to cancer treatment, neurological protection, bone health, and metabolic balance, this powerful hormone is shaping up to be a promising area of therapeutic development.

While melatonin is extremely safe and side effects are rare at typical supplemental doses, more research is still needed – particularly on proper dosing strategies, mechanisms of action, and any long-term effects of chronic high-dose usage.

With its antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and regulatory influences over so many critical biological systems, melatonin presents exciting possibilities as both a preventative and therapeutic intervention for many of today’s most pressing health conditions. As our modern world continues disrupting our natural circadian rhythms through light pollution, shift work, and more, the importance of maintaining optimal melatonin levels will only continue growing.

 

*Get access to high quality, well tested Melatonin supplements and 10-20% off retail prices in my online dispensary HERE

 

Resources:

  1. https://www.statista.com/statistics/1267421/sales-of-melatonin-in-the-united-states/
  2. Minich DM, Henning M, Darley C, Fahoum M, Schuler CB, Frame J. Is Melatonin the “Next Vitamin D”?: A Review of Emerging Science, Clinical Uses, Safety, and Dietary Supplements. Nutrients. 2022 Sep 22;14(19):3934. doi: 10.3390/nu14193934. PMID: 36235587; PMCID: PMC9571539.
  3. Genario R, Cipolla-Neto J, Bueno AA, Santos HO. Melatonin supplementation in the management of obesity and obesity-associated disorders: A review of physiological mechanisms and clinical applications. Pharmacol Res. 2021 Jan;163:105254. doi: 10.1016/j.phrs.2020.105254. Epub 2020 Oct 17. PMID: 33080320.
  4. Lauritzen E.S., Kampmann U., Pedersen M.G.B., Christensen L.L., Jessen N., Møller N., Støy J. Three months of melatonin treatment reduces insulin sensitivity in patients with type 2 diabetes-A randomized placebo-controlled crossover trial. J. Pineal Res. 2022;73:e12809.
  5. Gu C, Zhou Q, Hu X, Ge X, Hou M, Wang W, Liu H, Shi Q, Xu Y, Zhu X, Yang H, Chen X, Liu T, He F. Melatonin rescues the mitochondrial function of bone marrow-derived mesenchymal stem cells and improves the repair of osteoporotic bone defect in ovariectomized rats. J Pineal Res. 2024 Jan;76(1):e12924. doi: 10.1111/jpi.12924. Epub 2023 Nov 8. PMID: 37941528.
  6. Grivas TB, Savvidou OD. Melatonin the “light of night” in human biology and adolescent idiopathic scoliosis. Scoliosis. 2007 Apr 4;2:6. doi: 10.1186/1748-7161-2-6. PMID: 17408483; PMCID: PMC1855314.
  7. Jehan S, Jean-Louis G, Zizi F, Auguste E, Pandi-Perumal SR, Gupta R, Attarian H, McFarlane SI, Hardeland R, Brzezinski A. Sleep, Melatonin, and the Menopausal Transition: What Are the Links? Sleep Sci. 2017 Jan-Mar;10(1):11-18. doi: 10.5935/1984-0063.20170003. PMID: 28966733; PMCID: PMC5611767.

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